Last week a Trump administration official decided to inform the news media that the CIA program to arm and train anti-Assad Syrian forces had been terminated. It was welcome news amid a deepening U.S. military commitment reflecting the intention to remain in the country for years to come. As my recent article in TAC documented, the net result of the program since late 2011 has been to provide arms to al Qaeda terrorists and their jihadist and other extremist allies, which had rapidly come to dominate the military effort against the Assad regime.
The Trump administration’s decision to acknowledge explicitly its decision to end the program invites a more systematic analysis of why and how such a program, which was so clearly undermining a fundamental U.S. national-security interest, could have gotten started and continue for so long. The preliminary version of the program that began in late 2011 is easier to explain than its more direct form two years later, which had continued (at least formally) until now.
One of the keys to understanding its origins is that the program was launched not because of a threat to U.S. security, but because of a perceived opportunity. That is always a danger sign, prompting powerful national-security bureaucrats to begin thinking about a “win” for the United States. (Think Vietnam and Iraq.)
The opportunity in this case was the rise of opposition protests against the Assad regime in spring 2011 and the belief among national…